By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- There were times this season when Warren County High School senior Rachel Oden thought Jeremy Burnworth was one mean coach.
Still on the mend from a hip ailment suffered during last track season, Oden simply wanted to get back to running with her teammates. Usually, Oden was in front of them. Not at the start of the season, though -- Burnworth wouldn't let her.
"I know I was really tough on him this summer because I wanted to run harder and I knew, deep down inside that Coach B wanted me to be healthy for the end of the season, but I really wanted to be up there with the rest of the girls," Oden said.
Burnworth had his hands full with this season's Wildcats, dealing with a collection of injuries and a lack of overall depth in what he thought would be a rebuilding year.
It wasn't, though -- the Wildcats exceeded all expectations by earning a state bid for the Class 3A championship meet. Even Burnworth, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2013 Girls Cross Country Coach of the Year, admits to surprise at what his team accomplished this season.
It took some doing. Oden stayed on task and recovered from her injury in time to be a major factor for the Wildcats' push to states. Claire Morrow also dealt with illness during the season but was strong when Warren County needed her the most. Fiona Sayers and Jacklyn Rankin made amazing progress from the previous season, and sophomore Mara Brown and freshman Karley Shanks came on quickly for the team.
"Normally as a coach I don't like to say they exceeded my expectations and they weren't going to be great, but honestly when we started the season -- before the season started, before the summer started, back at the end of last cross country season -- we were thinking this would be a rebuilding year," Burnworth said. "Rachel was hurt, Claire was probably our one returner we were pretty sure about, and then Fiona and Jacklyn were at the lower end of our varsity before that. Really, we just didn't know how committed they were to really running -- they played soccer and stuff.
"And after that, we really didn't have much coming from middle school and we really didn't have a lot in the system. So we were saying to ourselves, this is going to be a tough year. It could go either way."
Getting Oden on board with a conservative start to the season was crucial. The Wildcats' top returning runner from last year, Oden was none too pleased to be held back at the start even if it was for her own good.
"I didn't want to bring her back and have something that injured her for life, but at the same time I wanted to make sure she came in slowly, with some confidence," Burnworth said. "She just hated it. She hated the fact I was making her run behind Fiona. She hated the fact that I was making her run 10 miles instead of 20 or 25, or something that she was used to. So it was a mental battle for her."
Oden won that battle, and was there to lead the Wildcats down the stretch. Warren County turned in a modest fourth-place finish in the rigorous Bull Run District meet, but the Wildcats were just warming up as Morrow continued to recover after missing three straight weeks. Oden was solid, and Sayers -- and Rankin -- were simply revelations as the season progressed this year.
"Fiona and Jacklyn decided to run track and they did winter conditioning, and that made all the difference in the world," Burnworth said. "They just committed and they ran their butts off. They dropped two or three minutes, and that's not an exaggeration, off their times from the year before. All of a sudden you've got two more kids to take the place of some kids that left."
The following week at the Conference 28 meet hosted by Bull Run rival Central, the Wildcats took another step forward with a second-place finish. The boys team also qualified for the regional meet, the first time both Warren County squads had accomplished that since 1995.
That might have been enough, but the Wildcats had more in store. Burnworth was optimistic that his girls squad could nab one of the last qualifying spots for the state meet -- maybe fifth or sixth -- but his team surprised him again with a fourth-place finish to move on.
"We were thinking sixth place, maybe we can beat Central and pop into fifth," Burnworth said. "Then they ended up coming in fourth. It was just a great day because everybody just ran well and did what they had to do. In that case, it doesn't have anything to do with me. It has to do with those kids just coming in there, and they decided to all run."
Coupled with the boys' sixth-place finish to also land a state qualifying spot, the regional meet was perhaps the best day of a season full of good memories for Burnworth.
There was one more race to run, at Great Meadow for the Class 3A state meet. The goal was simple for the Wildcats -- don't finish last. They didn't, pulling off a 10th-place finish to cap a satisfying and somewhat surprising season.
"They all ran pretty much what I expected them to run," Burnworth said. "No one ran out of their mind. Jacklyn Rankin ran the best race. She PR'd by a lot. She ran spectacular.
"We did pretty much what was expected, maybe just a little bit better because of Jacklyn. But there was definitely no disappointment there. None of them tanked. We ran a solid race against some solid competition. I was pretty happy at the end of the day."
Without Burnworth's persistent pushing, Sayers knows she probably wouldn't have achieved so much this year.
"Some of his workouts are really hard and we always moan and groan about them, but in the end they helped us get where we got," Sayers said. "He really enjoys it. He actually goes out and runs with us and participates in all of our things. He gets us excited and motivated."
"He pushed me off the edge of the cliff, and I flew."
Burnworth credited assistant Michael Waurio, who works exclusively with the girls team, for helping make this season a success. With Oden, Sayers and Rankin among the Wildcats who will graduate in the spring, next year offers another challenge.
"Next year should be rebuilding, but that's what I said before," Burnworth said.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>